The Created Universe

3.2.1 The contingency of the World

A world created out of nothing and sustained in being by the activity of God is clearly a contingent, not a necessary, state of affairs. But what exactly do we mean by contingency? There is a temptation, in theistic metaphysics, to define the world's contingency in terms of ontological dependence. The worldview under consideration sees the universe as wholly dependent on God for being here and for being what it is. Matter or energy, the world stuff, as one might crudely call it, exists, all the time, with a derived reality. And its fundamental nature and laws, together with its capacities and potentialities, also derive from, and are sustained by, an infinite, self-existent creative will.

But to define contingency in terms of ontological dependence is to deprive oneself of a premise for theistic argument. You cannot argue from contingency to necessity if you have defined contingency as dependence on a necessary ground. This may not matter, if, like T. F. Torrance or even Wolfhart Pannenberg, you are simply articulating a theology of nature, setting out what form a theistic metaphysic might take, and trying to show its coherence. But it is worth asking whether there is not a more restricted way of understanding contingency that does not build the conclusion of, say, a cosmological argument into the main premise from which one starts, and which therefore does provide a genuine premise for theistic argument.

The contingent, on this view, is simply the non-necessary or non-self-explanatory. Contingency of being means the fact that something — say, the world — exists, when, as far as one can see, it might not have done. And contingency of nature means the fact that things have the properties and powers they have, when, as far as one can see, these might, indeed might well, have been otherwise. This latter point, especially when spelled out in terms of the universe's manifest capacity to evolve life and mind, could then provide the starting point for a teleological or design argument.

There is an interesting discussion of the cosmological argument, the argument from contingency to necessity, in Peter Geach's long article on Aquinas. In commenting on Thomas Aquinas's 'third way', Geach takes its starting point, not from some 'I know not what ''sense'' or ''experience'' of contingency, but from the plain fact that some things are perishable'. For Aquinas, the whole world cannot have been like that for ever. Otherwise, sooner or later, it would have perished, like apples and people and planets and stars eventually do. To reply that a world of perishable things may consist of imperishable matter under different and changing forms is not to refute Aquinas. It is to go along with the first stage of his proof. Aquinas might well agree that imperishable matter provides the necessary basis of a world of contingent, i.e. perishable, things. But the second stage of his proof is to argue that imperishable matter does not possess its relative necessity from itself.In another sense, matter too is contingent, in that it is not self-explanatory. If so, it can only derive its being and character from something absolutely necessary, something, that is, that does not derive its necessity, or imperishable character, from something else. It is this second stage that points in the direction of God as the absolutely necessary ground of the world's being, even if the 'stuff of the world' is imperishable. The danger here is once again that of defining 'contingency' in this second sense as dependence or derivedness, thus building the conclusion of the argument into the premise of its second stage. But the starting point of this stage of the argument is simply no more than that even the imperishable matter or energy that constitutes the stuff of the world is not self-explanatory. It exists with a certain total magnitude, it possesses certain basic properties and powers, and it operates under very specific, mathematically expressible laws. But its existence and its nature, as far as we can see, are not absolutely necessary. The question why it exists and is just so, when presumably it might not have existed or might have been different, still arises. This is the point of the cosmological argument and indeed of the design argument when the actual capacities of the universe are reckoned with.

It is interesting to note that secular philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer, try to block this argument sometimes by saying that the universe is just a brute fact and that 'why?' questions get no purchase hold at this level, and sometimes by saying that the universe is itself absolutely necessary, in the sense of underived imperishableness. These are very different responses. The first seems quite arbitrary, the second highly implausible. The human mind cannot be prevented from pressing 'why?' questions, and it is not difficult to think of other possible worlds.

The contingency of the universe, therefore, 'consists in its being just so and not otherwise, when for all we can tell, it might have been otherwise'.53 And that goes for the bare existence of just such a world (the cosmological point) and for the specific character of just such a world, its capacity for evolving persons (the teleological point). A theistic metaphysic will, of course, explain this contingency in terms of creation: such a world depends for its being, its nature, its purpose and its destiny on the will and action of God. And in theistic religion, the world's contingency is often sensed or experienced, as by mystics such as Julian of Norwich. Geach has no business disparaging this.

3.2.2 Thefinitude of the World

Theistic metaphysics also employs the contrast between finite and infinite. The created universe is finite, that is, it is limited or bounded in some way, by contrast with its infinite, unlimited, unbounded creative source and ground. The notions of finitude and contingency are clearly linked, especially when we think in terms of metaphysical finitude, that is, the onto-logical dependence of the created world on its Creator for its very existence and persistence in being.

But, again, it is important to note that the finitude of the universe is not necessarily a matter of its temporal or spatial finitude — its having a beginning in time, or having a limited spatial extent or a specific total mass. We shall touch on the scientific treatment of these issues in the next section. In philosophy, the finitude of the universe is more a matter of existential and metaphysical analysis. A common starting point is to dwell on our own finitude. Martin Heidegger, for example, in his account of human temporality, of our 'thrownness' into the world, of our 'being towards death', stressed just this fundamental experience of our finitude. And the leitmotif of Heidegger's whole philosophy was that our own finitude reflects the finitude of all modes of being in the world.

In a very different, more Aristotelian, mode of philosophy (a mode of philosophy more akin to that of the analytic tradition), Austin Farrer's first book, Finite and Infinite, also moved from an exploration of the finite self, its unity and its nature, expressed through its willing acts in a given world, to an analogous exploration of the nature of finite substance in general. The coexistence of the elements in finite substance, Farrer suggests, is intelligible only on the supposition of God's existence as the ground of such finite coexistence.55

3.2.3 Science and Creation

Questions of the world's temporal and spatial finitude cannot be considered without reference to the work of contemporary physicists and cosmologists who have offered some intriguing, if not readily intelligible, speculations on these matters.

Stephen Hawking's lecture, 'The Origin of the Universe',56 attempted to show the non-specialist that 'Big Bang' cosmology need not necessarily involve a temporal beginning to the universe. We have already seen how some philosophers, such as Morris, interpret the singularity to which cos-mologists press back in their speculations about the early history of the universe as suggestive of creation out of nothing. A similar inference is drawn by William Lane Craig in his debate with Quentin Smith in their book, Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology. But Hawking, together with his colleague Jim Hartle, put forward the intriguing hypothesis of a finite, multidimensional, but unbounded universe, operating under the laws of quantum gravity, in which any singularity to which we are driven back in real time ceases to entail an absolute beginning from the perspective of imaginary time. The philosopher may well wonder if this makes sense, especially the bit about imaginary time. But it is worth noting the difference between the way in which Hawking ends this lecture and the way in which he ends the comparable chapter in his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.59 In the lecture, he concludes: 'Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question, Why does the universe bother to exist? I don't know the answer to that.' In the book, he concludes: 'If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?'

John Polkinghorne gives this last question a straight answer: 'Every place — as the sustainer of the self-contained spacetime egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws.'60 And Keith Ward, at rather more length, shows how, even if self-contained, the fundamental structures of the universe — the quantum fields and the laws of physics — still need explaining.61 The upshot of this discussion is clear: Hawking was nearer the mark in his lecture than in his book. And the need to postulate a Creator does not depend on a temporal beginning to the universe. But, as we have seen, that was already clear to Aquinas.

Another way of eliminating a temporal beginning is the multiple universe theory. (Here, 'universe' cannot mean everything there is. It means rather our whole space-time cosmic system and any other such systems there may be.) The theory may take the more straightforward form of suggesting an endless succession of expansions and contractions or the more esoteric form (not unrelated to Hawking's theory) of simultaneous, but unrelated, unbounded space-time systems. These extravagant and, one has to say, unverifiable and therefore metaphysical hypotheses are advanced not only in order to evade the relatively unimportant question of a temporal beginning, but also to avoid the teleological or design implications of the so-called 'anthropic' principle.

For, if our space-time cosmic system constitutes the one and only entire universe, there is no doubt that the 'fine-tuning' of the initial conditions in and immediately following the Big Bang does suggest design. There are a number of factors: the total mass of the universe, its density, the rate of expansion, the degree of inhomogeneity of radiation, etc., etc., all of which had to obtain within a very narrow range of possibilities, if galaxies and planetary systems were to evolve with conditions under which life could appear. The 'anthropic principle' argument for design, based on this fine-tuning, is most readily to be found in the Appendix B, added by Richard

Swinburne to the second edition of his The Existence of God.62 More detailed treatments of the anthropic principle may be found in Barrow and Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Gribbin and Rees's The Stuff of the Universe and Leslie's Universes. The last of these, in particular, considers the alternative 'multiple universes' hypothesis extensively.

My own view is that the alternatives are pretty fanciful, and that there is a strong case for design on the basis of this fine-tuning. But it also needs to be stressed that, if the multiple universes alternative is adopted, thus rendering the cosmic coincidences less implausible, given innumerable, perhaps infinitely many, throws of the dice, there is still a case for design, given the capacity of the world stuff to evolve life and mind and personality at all. Objections to this argument from the problem of evil will be considered later.

3.2.4 Other necessities: abstract ideas, possibilities, numbers

We turn now from the contingencies evident in the created universe, the factors that, as far as we can tell, could have been otherwise, to those aspects of this and any possible world which possess a kind of necessity, the factors, that is, that could not have been otherwise. There is a sense in which this is true of all abstract ideas. There may or may not be such entities as cats. Cats are wholly contingent beings. But catness — what it is to be a cat — is necessarily what it is in any possible world. If a world contains cats, this is what they will be like. That is not to say that it is necessary that there should be the idea of catness. Rather, any world containing cats will necessarily have these features.

The same goes for possibilities. The range of possibilities is necessarily what it is. An even more obvious case, as Platonists down the ages have urged, can be made for the necessity of mathematical objects, such as numbers. In any possible world, two plus two will equal four. Moreover, while the stuff of the world and the fundamental laws of nature might have been different, the fact that its basic structure is mathematically expressible, perhaps by a single equation, shows that there are necessary, rational constraints on the kind of world there can be.

How is theistic metaphysics to make sense of all this? I have already mentioned Creel's implausible view that the range of possibilities, the plenum, as he calls it, between which God chooses in actualizing a world, exists independently of the Creator. The contrary view — namely, that all these necessities are to be construed as dependent necessities, dependent, that is, on the nature and mind of God — is powerfully argued by T. V. Morris and Christopher Menzel in their joint essay, 'Absolute Creation', and by Menzel in his article, 'Theism, Platonism and the Metaphysics of Mathematics'.

Morris and Menzel call the abstract necessities, to which any contingent world has to conform, 'the framework of reality', and ask the key question whether the Creator has to be thought of as responsible, not only for the contingent created world as it actually is, but also for the necessary framework itself. They argue for the view that the God of 'maximal greatness' theism must indeed be the absolute Creator of necessary as well as contingent reality. What are we to make of this?

Well, we can surely go along with this view as far as abstract ideas and possibilities are concerned. They can be seen as creative ideas in the mind of God. But mathematical equations and the laws of logic have a different kind of dependent necessity. Morris and Menzel quite rightly reject Des-cartes's notorious opinion69 that the laws of logic were chosen by God, and could have been otherwise. But the inner necessity of the laws of logic is surely more a matter of their necessarily reflecting the consistency and rationality of the divine nature than a matter of internally necessary divine causation. My conclusion would be that, while some dependent necessities are indeed God's creative ideas, others depend on and reflect God's nature.

3.2.5 The world's openness to the future

At several points in our discussion of the nature of the created universe I have suggested that maximal greatness theology will be inclined to prefer an understanding of God's creative enterprise that sees the world as open to the future, containing many possibilities of free action and response, with God's personal creatures given the opportunity to make or mar their own futures, and thus the world's future, in cooperation with, or against, God's non-coercive grace and inspiration. This, it will be recalled, entailed a 'risk' view of creation and providence rather than Helm's 'no-risk' view.70 Such a theology is defended by Keith Ward in chapter 11 of his Religion and Creation.71 He contrasts it with the 'block-time' model of the universe favoured by many mathematical physicists, and raises the key question whether 'the mathematical point of view gives insight into the real structure of reality, or whether it is an abstraction, useful for purposes of calculation, but misleading if taken as a model of reality'.

It is certainly much easier nowadays to accept a non-deterministic view of the world than it was in Newton's day. Both quantum theory and chaos theory have revealed a fuzziness or flexibility at the heart of the world's constituent energy that may well be the necessary condition for the evolution of free creatures, as has been argued in their different ways by Anscombe and by Polkinghorne. A non-deterministic, developing world is open to the future, in the sense of containing more and more open possibilities for realization through the free choices and creative innovations of beings such as ourselves. The nature of such a world and the nature of time as the matrix of free personal life and interaction has been explored in detail by the Oxford philosopher John Lucas, in a series of books from The Freedom of the Will to The Future, in which he also spells out the theological implications of all this. He concludes the last of these books with the following words:

If God created man in His own image, He must have created him capable of new initiatives and new insights which cannot be precisely or infallibly foreknown, but which give to the future a perpetual freshness as the inexhaustible variety of possible thoughts and actions, on the part of His children as well as Himself, crystallizes into actuality.77

The limitations which this entails for God's omniscience have been much debated in recent philosophical theology. Certainly we have to suppose that the infinite, eternal God knows all that can be known, all past and present facts and the future in so far as it is determined. But where freedom, creativity and open possibilities are concerned, even God cannot know precisely what we will do. This is one of the risks that an open-futured creation involves. Not that the Creation can get wholly out of the Creator's control. God knows what to do whatever we do, and how to bring our tortuous human history into a perfected harmony in the end. But the precise route of that interactive journey cannot be foretold even by omniscience. We may even be forced to put a question mark against the view that omniscience entails knowledge of every possibility. Knowledge ofpossibil-ities may, necessarily, be restricted to the kinds ofthing there may be and the kinds of thing that may be done. Even God cannot know in advance all the possible people there may be, or all the possible operas that may be written. Possible people — the individuals there might have been or may one day be — cannot be known in advance of their formation through particular life histories. Possible operas cannot be known in advance of their actual creative composition. The Magic Flute was Mozart's creation, not the copying of a divine blueprint. The greatness of the Creator's work consists, among other things, in the creation of a world that can come up with a Mozart who can come up with The Magic Flute.

One way in which some philosophers think that these limitations on divine foreknowledge can be avoided is by adopting the late medieval theory known as 'middle knowledge' (scientia media), whereby God, in his omniscience, is supposed to be aware of all contingencies, including future contingents and all 'counterfactuals of freedom', for example, what each of us would have done, had things turned out differently, and what each of us would do in whatever future circumstances come to pass. But are we seriously to suppose that God knows precisely what President Kennedy would have done in 1967 had he not been assassinated in 1963, or what I would do next year if I were to go to Australia (which I will not)? The incoherence of middle knowledge has been ably argued by William Hasker in God, Time and Knowledge, and several issues of Faith and Philosophy contain discussions of this widely ramifying issue in philosophical theology.81

3.2.6 The goodness of the world

Even if the notion of the best of all possible worlds is rejected (see section 3.1.6), it follows from God's perfection that anything he creates will be good. Maximal greatness theology is bound to echo the Genesis affirmation that 'God saw what he had made and behold it was very good'. It follows that matter or energy, the fundamental stuff of the world, is good, and that all its products, all natural kinds, including life, mind, spirit and persons in relation, are in essence good. Creation as a whole, including, of course, its intended consummation in the end, has to be affirmed as very good. I will mention in this connection just two books: Robert Adams's Finite and Infinite Goods and Mark Wynn's God and Goodness. Admittedly the former is primarily concerned with ethics and the latter with natural theology, but readers will find much illuminating reflection on the nature of created goods in their pages.

What, then, is to be said about evil? The problem of evil is undoubtedly the greatest threat to the credibility of theism and of the view of creation sketched in this chapter. There is a huge literature on this subject,85 and only the briefest of treatments can be offered here.

The first thing to be said is that evil is not a substance. No created substance is, in and of itself, evil. Evil states of affairs consist in deprivations or frustrations brought about either by unintended clashes and accidents or by the perversion and abuse of the human will. This is the import of the Augustinian analysis of evil as privatio boni (deprivation of good). This does not mean that evil is simply a negative phenomenon, an absence of good.

The clashes and perversions can indeed take very positive and appalling forms. But they cannot be regarded as part of the actual stuff of the world.

But why are such terrible states of affairs and perversions permitted to occur in God's creation? The only credible answer is that they are part of the 'risk' God takes in fashioning an environment capable of producing, forming and sustaining finite personal and interpersonal life. One aspect of this can readily be seen. We know from experience that human free will is always open to abuse. Human beings are not robots or computers. The point of human life would be lost if we were simply programmed always to act well. But the reason why our freedom is so much at risk to temptation and abuse is that we humans are rooted in and drawn out of an impersonal natural world that can always frustrate and annul our highest aspirations. Sometimes, as I say, this is a matter of our succumbing to temptation; sometimes it is a matter of accident or disaster. These risks in the creative process can only be understood if we can come to see that human life has to be built up from below, fashioned indirectly in and through a regularly structured environment that, as well as producing and sustaining us, can also do us so much harm. Once formed in this way, we acquire the capacity for transformation, by the Creator, into the perfected conditions of eternity. But the created world, with all its glories and risks, is the necessary condition of our coming to be. Heaven cannot be posited in being directly, any more than a mature, wise artist or saint can be posited in being directly.

So, the goods ofcreation, including the great good ofits perfected state in the end, can be held to justify the risks involved only if those risks are necessary conditions of the realisation of those goods.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment